Senate Democrats propose first responders' aid fund for train derailments
(WASHINGTON) — Democrats in Congress are proposing additional aid for local first responders amid the ongoing conversation concerning rail safety in the wake of the February train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
In the time since the Feb. 3 derailment, lawmakers in Washington have focused on the state and federal response to the spilling of toxic chemicals that contaminated soil and water in East Palestine and neighboring Darlington, Pennsylvania. Now, Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Bob Casey is introducing legislation that would give local emergency workers additional resources to deal with similar incidents in the future.
According to U.S. Department of Transportation data, there have been an average of 1,475 train derailments per year from 2005-2021. Firefighters, police and other local agencies that deal with hazardous material are often the first to arrive on the scene of hazardous derailments, even before state and federal teams can be deployed.
Casey’s bill, set to be introduced Thursday, would create a new fund which would be used to reimburse emergency responders for costs incurred when responding to a train derailment in their communities.
That fund, which would be managed by the Federal Railroad Administration, would be paid into by shippers and carriers moving hazardous material.
Democratic senators from the states most affected by the East Palestine derailment are co-sponsoring the legislation: Sherrod Brown of Ohio and John Fetterman of Pennsylvania.
“The first responders who risked their lives and wellbeing to protect Pennsylvania and Ohio from Norfolk Southern’s disaster are heroes who deserve much more than our gratitude,” Casey said in a statement, referring to the company operating the train that derailed last month.
“The Assistance for Local Heroes During Train Crises Act will help our communities better prepare for future derailments and cover the cost of damaged equipment, overtime pay, and more—all paid for by the companies that ship and carry these materials,” Casey said. “Along with the Railway Safety Act, this legislation will help keep our communities safe from hazardous train derailments and hold railroads accountable for the damage these crises inflict.”
In the aftermath of the East Palestine derailment, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has emphasized the need for increased response training for first responders. Earlier this month, he announced he had spoken with the CEOs of both Norfolk Southern and CSX rails about those additional resources.
Casey said he identified similar needs in Pennsylvania.
In response, Norfolk Southern agreed to create a new first responder training center near East Palestine, with the first sessions set to begin Tuesday in Bellevue. Trainings will focus on preparing for and responding to rail incidents involving hazardous materials.
The company says they have also reimbursed and committed more than $3 million to the East Palestine Fire Department for equipment used in the derailment response, including $220,000 to replace self-contained breathing apparatus air packs, which allow firefighters to breathe compressed air when responding to fires.
“The derailment in East Palestine made clear that ensuring first responders are prepared for disasters involving hazardous materials is vitally important to the safety of communities,” DeWine said in a statement last week. “Often first responders are volunteers, and their need to have the most up-to-date training and equipment is essential. Today’s commitment by Norfolk Southern is an important next step in the company’s commitment to make the citizens of Ohio and of East Palestine whole after the recent derailment, a commitment Ohio will continue to monitor closely.”
Casey’s bill goes further, creating a fund to anticipate future challenges. It comes as Congress continues to debate whether and how to regulate railroads.
Casey, Brown and Fetterman, along with Ohio Republican Sen. JD Vance, have already introduced a more expansive rail reform bill, the Railway Safety Act, in response to the East Palestine derailment.
That proposal has bipartisan co-sponsors, including Republican Sens. Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio, of Missouri and Florida. It would enhance safety precautions for trains carrying hazardous material, including by requiring that wheels of trains carrying hazardous materials be scanned for heat every 10 miles; mandating a two-person crew aboard all trains; and increasing the fines that the U.S. Department of Transportation can levy against corporations for breaking rules.
The Railway Safety Act would also implement new provisions that would require carriers to provide advance notification and information to state emergency response officials about what they are transporting.
The legislation Casey is introducing on Thursday would require local officials, like fire departments and other emergency responders, to be kept in the loop when a train is moving hazardous material through their communities.
Casey’s office noted local emergency responders and firefighters are often “the first line of defense for public safety.”
They do so sometimes “with limited knowledge of what has been spilled or caught fire” and, even so, “help evacuate residents, fight fires, close roads, and perform other urgent tasks to mitigate disaster,” Casey said — work which can “quickly surpass the budget of local first responder organizations, especially if they need to pay workers overtime, replace damaged equipment, or purchase supplies” and especially for smaller, more rural towns through which these rails often run.
“Emergency personnel who respond to hazardous train derailments deserve more than our thanks,” Casey said.
What remains to be seen, however, is whether there will be the necessary Republican support to move forward on enacting Casey’s bill focused on first responders.
The East Palestine derailment inspired some unusual bipartisanship among area politicians, who acknowledged the trauma that derailment caused to the village — and the urgent need for systemic safety improvements in the rail industry.
Still, larger efforts to impose new federal-level rules on the rail industry have struggled to gain steam with all Republicans in Congress, who worry about prematurely regulating a private industry.
Conservatives in the House cast the reform legislation as overly restrictive while some in the GOP have also said they want to see the National Transportation Safety Board’s final report on the derailment before endorsing legislation. That report could take more than a year to be completed.
Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has vowed to work with the legislation’s sponsors to move the Railway Safety Act onto the floor. It’s possible that Casey’s new legislation could be included as part of that discussion.
But without 60 votes, the legislation won’t clear the Senate. That’s led proponents of new regulations to grow restless.
“I tell you what I’d do on that rail bill: I’d go to the floor and I’d make senators vote on it every single day until there’s some progress made,” Hawley said Wednesday. “The strategy here … from the rail lobbyist and their allies is to delay, delay, delay until public pressure appears to have cooled off. Meanwhile, the people of East Palestine and others as these accidents continue will have gotten no relief.”
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